Three weeks (or more) in Hilo
30 May 2011 | Hilo, Hawaii
Tomorrow we will have been in Hilo for three weeks. What's that you say? Could Hilo possibly be that interesting that there would be three weeks of stuff to do there? Well, yes and no. Here's some details.
Every few days we get excited, and we're about to depart, but then the weather window, which was supposedly about to happen, closes with no explanation. The weathermen (or perhaps weatherwomen) tease us with the promise of a slight lessening of the wind a few days ahead. But as you get closer to the supposed lessening, it dwindles and then goes away. Not mentioned. Not going to happen.
The problem is the Alenuihaha Channel, which is in between the Big Island and Maui, the next island downwind. The northeast trade winds funnel through that channel, which runs northeast to southwest, and the funnel amplifies the winds. 20 knots elsewhere becomes 30 knots in the channel. 30 knots of wind means wind waves of 13 feet. All of which sounds rather off-putting. It's not that we can't handle those conditions, because we have seen them and sailed through them before - it's just that sitting here in calm Hilo, why would you purposely volunteer for those conditions? Especially when there's so much to do here that's fun.
So we keep renting these cars... I'm sure you could get a better rate if you rented a car for three weeks, rather than two days, plus four days, plus three days, plus four days, etc. etc. Each time a weather window snaps shut, we rent a car from then until the next possible weather window. We can tell you all about the various agencies, which ones charge for a spouse/driver, which ones clean their cars thoroughly, and how to get the best price on Priceline. And of course, once you have a car, it's time to go out and go exploring. Here's some of what we've done:
Our first trip was to go over to the Kona coast (on the dry side of the island) to check out the one marina and the few anchorages and decide whether we wanted to take the boat over there. We decided not. Too many tourists, too many shops that only want to sell to tourists, no space in the marina, and anchorages that seem pretty rolly. We checked out the commercial harbor at Kawaihae, which appears on the charts to have lots of space behind a breakwater, but it's apparently unfriendly to cruisers. Commercial traffic only. We talked to some picnickers there, including a well-pickled lady who insisted that Craig was Sean Connery. (I must admit I do see a resemblance).
Next we went to Volcano National Park and looked at steam vents, lava tubes and desolate calderas, all in the rain. The scenery is stunning, but it would be better without the rain. We're heading back tomorrow or the next day to give the weather another try and go for a hike. (It rains every day in Hilo, and it rains more at night. As you travel toward the mountains, the rain seems to increase. 200 inches annually in Hilo, 240 inches up the hill a ways.)
Another day we drove to the edge of the lava flow which was occurring as recently as three months ago. Now it's a black stone river, with some houses that escaped in little islands of green, and others that were covered over. That part of the lava flow is still all private property, and some folks have built their houses back on top of the lava. In other places, they've just chalked on "Kapu" (taboo) or "No Trespassing." Then we drove along the coast and saw big seas, a few surfers, a few spots for swimmers, and lots of lush tropical foliage.
One evening we drove up to the visitor center on Mauna Kea, the biggest mountain on Hawaii Island. The visitor center is at 9000 feet, although all the observatories are actually at the summit, more than 13,000 feet. (The car rental companies don't let you drive all the way to the top, unless you rent a 4 wheel drive, which we have not chosen to do. ) The drive up was spectacular. The road passes through rain and layers of clouds, changing vegetation, and finally out into the open air above the clouds. We reached the visitor center just before sunset, and climbed up an adjacent cone to watch the sunset. The clouds boil through the pass between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, and layers of clouds extend in all directions, with volcanic peaks poking up here and there. Back down at the visitor center, we watched a film and ate a picnic dinner while we waited for it to get dark. Out on the lanai and in the parking lot, they had about 15 telescopes set up. Volunteers told us what there was to see in the various telescopes ("Saturn" or "The Jewel Box" or ...) When it was completely dark, a gentleman told us about various constellations, stars, planets, galaxies etc. that could be seen. He had a laser pointer which amazingly was effective in pointing out the various stars and constellations for the entire crowd (perhaps 50 people). It was bitterly cold - those 30 knot winds, but at distinctly non-tropical temperatures. We had brought fleece jackets, but would have been better off with knit caps and gloves, and maybe even long underwear! Still, the whole thing was definitely worth the trip and worth the cold. They say this is the best astronomical observation spot in the world, particularly in that you can drive to it in less than two hours.
A few days ago we drove up to Hawi, at the north end of the island, where I had been able to find some folks to play chamber music with. It was the carbon fiber cello's first outing in a chamber music setting, and I must say I was quite pleased with how it played and sounded. We enjoyed meeting the delightful Wanda and Larry Beck (viola and oboe) and hearing about the travails of maintaining residences and musical instruments in Hawaii and Colorado (both challenging environments for houses and instruments). Craig sat out on the lanai and watched the very big waves in the Alenuihaha Channel, and says he was distinctly discomfited by listening to and feeling that 30 knot wind. He saw a ketch round the top of the island and come south - likely it was Midnight Blue, a boat which had left Hilo very early that morning. They were moving downwind with bare poles, finally putting up a deeply reefed main. (We later got an email from Jane on Midnight Blue, and she confirmed that they had reached their anchorage just south of Hawi that afternoon. She said it was very windy...)
We've enjoyed the town of Hilo as well. There's a farmers market on a big scale twice a week, and on a small scale every day. We've seen two movies at the Kress Theater, where the admission is $1.50 on weeknights, and $1.75 on weekends. We've been to the Imiloa Planetarium and to the Lyman House (a museum focusing on the early missionaries). We've found some great restaurants - Thai, Japanese, Hawaiian "plates," Italian, Lebanese, Vietnamese, Chinese. I've been twice to the Discount Fabric Warehouse, which specializes in Hawaiian print fabrics. New fabric items for the boat are in the works, and I bought fabulous fabrics to make Aloha shirts, dinner napkins and Happi coats. I don't know whether any of that will happen while we're still on the boat, or perhaps it's a boatload of projects for when we get back.
Radio Bay - our home for the duration - is fun and interesting as well. We have our little compound here, with about 8 boats backed up to the seawall. A new boat arrives every few days, and sometimes an intrepid boat heads out into the trade winds. We've made some good friends here, and we have periodic pot-lucks or group happy hour around the picnic table. Jim, a single-hander from Victoria, B.C., (Orinoco) is heading back home tomorrow, completing a trip to England and back via the Panama canal. We met Doug and Lyneita (Ka'sala from Comox, B.C.) in Mexico, and our paths have been more or less parallel, and will continue to be so until we head for our respective homes later this summer. Jan and Joanna (Witte Raaf) are a Dutch couple who also came here from Mexico. Joanna stepped on a piece of glass 3 days before they arrived here, and is now on crutches after surgery - quite a lot of acrobatics is required for her to get on and off their boat, via dinghy, climbing the ladder up the sea wall. They'll head for Alaska once she's healed. Yesterday Jack & Joannie (Joannie B of Victoria, B.C.) arrived from Zihuatanejo. Today, Matt and Kelli (Dog Star of Berkeley, CA) left for Maui, trying to catch the miniscule window of slightly less wind that is predicted for tonight. Brian and Eva (Kainani of Hilo) have been here the whole time, fixing up the boat they bought in Mazatlan and sailed here to put into charter service. They are a fount of local knowledge.
Craig talked this morning with the National Weather Service in Honolulu. At the end of this week, it appears there will be a genuine break in the trade winds, so we will definitely, almost for sure, maybe, possibly, be departing then. We'll head around the top of the island and cross the Alenuihaha Channel, finding an anchorage on the south side of Maui, out of the wind.